The past few months — with everything going on with the coronavirus and not a lot of competitive sports happening — I’ve decided to start heading over to each school district throughout the GLOW region to check out all the outdoor athletic facilities.
I figured this could start some discussions and maybe come up with a top five, bottom five rankings on who has the best facility in the area and also which facility needs to step it up a bit.
Last week I made my way over to Hartwood Park in Le Roy, home of the 15-time sectional football champion Oatkan Knights.
I’ve obviously been to Hartwood Park what seems like a thousand times before so I had a pretty good idea what I was looking at. There’s always been something special about this facility — an absolute cathedral to a Friday night football game in Livingston County. When you think of Friday night lights you think immediately of a place like Hartwood (and Hamilton Field too).
My initial thoughts while I was walking around the track checking things out was what a beautiful, first-class facility this is and how lucky these Le Roy student-athletes were and still are. The field was in perfect condition, not a blade of grass out of place which I later found out was the outstanding work of employee Jim Cook, who is obviously a Michaelangelo with the rider. Honestly that field looked like the fairways at beautiful Stafford Country Club, it was that nice and manicured.
I’ve always been a natural grass fan when it comes to high school football and that’s one of the many characteristics I love about Hartwood. I believe Hamilton Field in Caledonia lost a little of its charm when they switched to turf, just my opinion.
Hartwood Park is more than just an outstanding football field, it has a new state-of-the-art fieldhouse with several team, locker rooms and a concession stand that sits inside between both the soccer and football fields.
The fieldhouse was built in September of 2016 by Campus Construction Management Group — with Clark Patterson Lee as the architect/engineer leading the way.
The plaque at Hartwood Park thanks many who contributed to this project including LCS Board of Education Members Donald Hobart (President), Jacalyn Whiting (VP), Larry Bonacquisti, Thomas Dambra, Denise Duthe, Richard Lawrence, Pete Loftus and Lloyd Miller; along with retired superintendent Tom Cox, current superintendent Merritt Holly, business administrator Brian Foeller, HS principal Tim McArdle, and middle school principal Carol Messura, whom all played their own important role in the project.
I’ve always wondered just how Hartwood Park actually become named Hartwood Park. Had to figure it was the last name of the person(s) responsible for donating the land or money to fund the land.
In this case it was a combination as Edith Hartwell married Ernest Woodward, thus forming the name Hartwood. More on them in a second.
You can’t help but wonder about all the great teams that played there over the years and the strong tradition of Le Roy football that was proud to call Hartwood Park home.
By now, everyone remembers the home winning streak Le Roy had at Hartwood that stretched 10 years from 1998 until the fall of 2009 — 43 consecutive victories before Steve Girolmo’s Livonia squad ended it in the opening game of the 2009 season.
Yes, I was at that game as well.
When a team played in Le Roy on a Friday night, a loss heading home was more than likely coming for the visitors.
While that has changed a bit the past few years, there was never a tougher home team from the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000s than the Le Roy Knights.
However, instead of myself attempting to talk about that tradition I decided to bring in Jim Bonacquisti and John Mangefrida who co-authored the book, “A Knight’s Journey,” which was a great informative read on the history and incredible tradition of Le Roy football.
The chapter, “Home Field Advantage,” tells you everything you need to know about Hartwood Park.
And after you read this, you will understand just why Jim Cook treats it like he does.
A KNIGHT’S JOURNEY
HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE
Football is no different from that of other sports; teams generally feel better about playing at home, resulting in more wins. High school football is no exception. This is due to several factors: No bus travel, being in one’s own locker room, and, more importantly, the field.
This is especially true at LeRoy. LeRoy is one of the few schools that still has a marching band. I love hearing the band coming down South Street. I believe it is a little intimidating to our opponents on Friday evenings. The band gives the feeling of a college atmosphere.
LeRoy Football has had a few different home fields since its inception in 1897. The earliest games were played on the Salts Works Field, located in the Northwest section of town; early maps place it behind St. Joseph’s Church, in the vicinity of what is now the location of LeRoy Plastics.
On August 16, 1951, Mrs. Ernest L. Woodward donated 40 acres to the LeRoy Central School District to be developed as athletic and recreational fields. The emphasis of the plan was to develop new football and baseball fields to replace the facilities at the high school. In my research for this chapter, there were some indications that the land was donated not only as a kind gesture by the Woodward family, but also to alleviate the area around the school of noise and heavy traffic on Friday nights in the fall.
The new complex would feature a new-lighted football field, regulation track, baseball field, practice fields and a clubhouse. A year later Mrs. Woodward donated an additional 15 acres and funding to complete the project. To honor this gift, the new facility would become known as Hartwood Park. The name was a combination of Mrs. Woodward’s maiden name of Hartwell and married name of Woodward.
The first game was played on Friday, Sept. 24, 1954, before an estimated 1500 fans(LeRoy Gazette 9/30/1954). The Knights defeated Medina 13-0 that night, lead by head coach William Bell and team captains Richard Clark and Sam Ianita.
On behalf of the entire community, I would like to thank the Woodward family for this outstanding gift. I hope through the years we have made the family proud of the quality of football played at this outstanding facility. Even more significant, the high praise for the facilities by players, coaches and opponents.
Through the years Hartwood Park has provided the Oatkan Knights with very friendly confines. From late in 1998 season through the end of 2008, the Knights won every game played there, an unofficial state record. Ten years, forty-three straight victory celebrations. In addition, the Knights lost only three home games from 1995 to 1998 (all in the 98 season). A record of 57-3 from the 1995 season through the 2008 season. Impressive!
In this chapter, I will write about how former players felt about playing at home, and the close calls in that ten year winning streak. There are some skeptics that feel as though throughout the years Hartwood Park has had more than its fair share of “home cooking.”
John Whiting, a former player from LeRoy, wrote the following college entry essay that best explains how many football players at LeRoy have felt through the years about our home field, Hartwood Park.
The first indication of its presence can be seen from the road which leads to it. This road, like a red carpet rolled out for those privileged enough to take part in the contest as spectator or player, reaches its destination and is welcomed by lights cascading down onto the field. As one enters the procession through the gate, the spectacle becomes clearer. To the right sits the locker room, a temporary sanctuary for the exhausted players. The object of everyone’s obsession, however, lies to the left.
Surrounding the field on either side are the bleachers, like mountains above the action taking place below. Like a much anticipated heavyweight bout, the spectators look down onto the field from their lofty positions like judges awaiting an outcome. As the lights continue to smile down onto the field, slight dew carried by the cool autumn breeze begins to cover the grass. The old-timers have seen this same act take place many times over the years. They are perched on the top row of the stands, like gods upon Mt.
Olympus. Like young Spartans training for future battles, the next generation of players are scattered in the surrounding fields playing their own game. The anticipation rises in the red and black stained stands. The field below is scarred from past contests not long forgotten. As the players march onto the field, thunderous cheers rise among the spectators as they would in the Coliseum of Ancient Rome. Brisk autumnal wind pierces the faces of the spectators and players alike.
To the players on the field, the conditions are perfect. The soft ground underfoot feels like clouds. Welcoming is the breeze and their pads feel as if they are a part of their bodies. The bittersweet smell of dirt and grass pervades their nostrils and is home to them as they step onto the sacred turf. To all the players, this is a temporary heaven on Earth. With the emotional words of Coach still ringing in their ears, the players are ready to take part in this, the most enviable position of all. The whistles blowing, pads popping, and crowd cheering permeate throughout the surrounding landscape like a flashflood. This flood overwhelms the opponent nearly every time. The tremendous pressure and anxiety felt by the players is like a boulder weighing on their conscience. However, with confidence and a sense of tradition strong in their minds, this anxiety is mitigated slightly.
Like a mote encircling a castle, the track surrounds the field, only permitting those who have worked hard enough on it in the previous weeks to proceed to their prize. Beyond the woods in the background lie the practice fields, another reminder of the sweat and hard work put into one common goal. The bleachers opposite those aforementioned are filled by a shade of maroon. These maroon clad hopefuls are silent, like a baby lulled to sleep by his mother. In this case, however, the home side of the scoreboard lighting up is the cause of their silence. The marching band is in the stands leading the crowd and players in their triumphal celebration. Their notes sing down the contingency of red and black, announcing their presence. As the moon rises higher into the sky, these notes along with the jovial cheering of the crowd continue, announcing another successful chapter to add to the never ending tradition of this very special place.
Cal-Mum’s head coach Mike Monacelli, on bringing his teams to Hartwood Park, commented, “Just the name was impressive. It was a great football atmosphere, and it had a certain aura about it.”
Brandon Shaughnessy commented, “Hartwood Park was our Coliseum. Plus, a lot of our fathers played on the same field. Therefore, it was our responsibility to be our best.” Justin Ausher added, “Playing on the same field as my brothers did, I had to play well.” And the accolades go on. “There was so much tradition in this locker room,” asserted Jason Hodge. Zac Dillow informed me he still has his chair with -56 on it at home, just to remind him of all those special moments he shared with so many of his teammates.
Like most small town football communities, big crowds are the norm. “It seemed the whole town came out. There was something special about playing in front of so many people,” stated Dave Tabone. Ron Plummer added, “Seeing cronies at Wednesday night practices under the lights just added to the great atmosphere of the park.”
“It just seemed like everything that was going on in LeRoy during fall Friday nights centered around home football games,” added Tony Gugino.
I love the tradition of young boys’ coming to games, knowing and hoping someday they would be playing for the home crowds. “We knew someday we would get our chance, and we better play well,” admitted Tom Shaughnessy.
“We idolized those players when we were young, comparing them to professional players,” added Mike Humphrey. Humphrey went on, “We once had a conversation at the dinner table asking who we thought was better, Joe Shaughnessy or Tiger Woods.”
I believe the winning tradition and outstanding football played at LeRoy for so many years helps enrich that atmosphere. Plummer mentioned, “At other schools, different sports are played on the football field. At LeRoy, only football is played, adding to the significance of the field.” “The old clubhouse, so close to the field, the energy of the night was something special,” asserted Quentin Call. The “Shiny Castle” is how Wayne Alexander described Hartwood Park.
Long before the ten-year streak, there was a fall night during the 1980 season that left one opponent with the feeling there was more to this home field advantage.
The Avon Braves were the foe that evening back in 1980. The accounts of that fall night at Hartwood Park vary depending on which side of the Genesee River a person resides. What can’t be disputed is that Knights were trailing very late in the game and needed a win to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Braves were forced to punt, and the ball traveled in flight to two LeRoy return men, Mike Shaughnessy and Morris Alexander.
Here is where the story differs.
The Avon account (“Leroy’s home field advantage”) of the play had Shaughnessy calling for a fair catch, so the Braves players slowed down. Alexander fielded the ball and illegally returned the punt for the winning score.
The LeRoy narrative had no one calling a fair catch and Morris catching the ball, dodging would-be tacklers, scoring a touchdown and saving the day for the home team. Numerous variations of the story on both sides have been told through the years.
I spoke to Mike Freeman, an Avon native and a LeRoy assistant coach at the time of this particular game. I believed Mike would give an objective account. He had a perfect view of the play and a great memory of what took place. Mike explained to me that the rule for a fair catch had changed just that year; players had to not only raise his hand but also had to wave it. Mike also went on to say, “With under a minute to play, why not kick the ball out of bounds? Why would anyone punt the ball to one of the best players in Section V (Alexander)? Further, at least five kids had a chance to tackle Morris, and no one was able to bring him down. We (LeRoy) won the game.” He added that some in his hometown still give him grief over this game.
With no video proof, I will go with the explanation of one great player making a special play at the most opportune time. Home field advantage? Maybe, but what took place for those ten straight years from 1998 through 2008 was something more than special.
“Slapping that sign (Play Like a Champion), heading out the door always made me feel special, and I knew I had a job to uphold,” stated Don Miller, Jr. “There was so much tradition, a sense of loyalty to all those that played before me,” added Jason Hodge.
“On Friday nights, the whole town is coming to watch YOU play; friends, relatives, neighbors, so you better ‘leave it’ on the field,” asserted Zac Dillow.
They are a lot of great examples of young men doing what it took to keep the Knights winning during those ten years.
It seemed during the streak that young men at the most important times took over games, putting their team and community on their backs in the pursuit of victory. And there were some victories snatched from the jaws of defeat during the streak. Here are some of the games that are illustrative in the streak remaining alive.
In the 1999 season, the Cougars from Honeoye Falls-Lima departed the field at Hartwood Park at halftime with a lead and celebrating excessively. I recall a statement made by Genesee County Sheriff’s Deputy Frank Bordonaro to assistant LeRoy Coach Porp Rogers as the jubilant Cougars passed him heading to their locker room. They were celebrating as if the game was over and the Knights would roll over in the second half. Bordonaro asked,” Do they (HFL) realize who they are playing tonight? Do they know you guys are not going to give up?” That police officer had witnessed the resiliency of past LeRoy football teams and players. It is worth noting Frank’s two boys, Bryce and Chase, would be a part of the rich tradition of LeRoy football some eighteen years later. On cue, the Knights responded with force.
In the second half, LeRoy running back Kyle Miller ran wild in what could be best described as a one wrecking crew. Linebacker Tom Shaughnessy helped shut down the Cougars offense, and the Knights won the game going away. The officer was right; those young men, like many before and after, had no intentions of giving in to a little adversity. How could they? They were Knights!
The home streak wasn’t threatened much from 1999 through 2002. “We never talked about the streak. To be honest, I was not even aware of until I got to college,” mentioned Joe Shaughnessy.
In 2003, the Avon Braves would fall victim to the mystique of Hartwood Park that emerged amidst the streak. But unlike the 1980 game, no controversy clouded this contest. The Braves were bigger, stronger, faster and probably a better team on paper. They held a slim lead late into the final stanza. But during the streak, players from LeRoy always seemed to make plays when called upon. Fullback Andrew Fox willed his team to victory with two big runs, the latter a touchdown run coming with just minutes left in the game to secure the win and keep the streak intact. Matt Bennetti, a member of the team in 2003, told me, “We did not want to be the team that lost at home.”
Interestingly enough, not much was made of the home winning streak. Neither coaches players nor members of the community mentioned it much. It really didn’t become a focal point of conversation until it exceeded thirty straight victories.
Our biggest rival and neighbors to the east, the Caledonia- Mumford Red Raiders, would test the streak three times, in 2004, 2006 and again in 2008.
Like any great rivalry, games between our two schools were always a battle. The Raiders from Cal-Mum are rich in their football traditions, so it is only fitting they proved to be the biggest threat to our home winning streak.
The game in 2004 was every young man’s dream playing football in the rain and mud. LeRoy held a comfortable lead heading into the fourth quarter. The Raiders were the defending State Champions, so there was no quit in this team. Like many resilient teams, the Raiders had their sights on winning the game. A key fumble recovery by Tim Dieffenbacher resulted in a touchdown for the home team. Later, a forced fumble by Andrew Fox and recovery by John Zinni helped seal the win. The Knights again exited the friendly albeit muddy, confines of Hartwood Park victorious. I have fond memories of this night, because many of the student body rushed the field after this victory. There were likely some future Knights in that group. Two years later, the Cal-Mum Raiders returned to face the Knights in what would be an even more dramatic contest.
The Red Raiders scored very late in the fourth quarter to take the lead, and it appeared all was lost for the home team. The fans wearing maroon and white were going wild in anticipation of victory. But wait. Like many before, an Oatkan Knight player takes it upon himself to come to the rescue of his team. This time, it was running back Ian Humphrey. Humphrey returned the ensuing kickoff past midfield, breaking numerous tackles to set his Knights with good field position. Four plays later, Humphrey followed key blocks by Kevin Brady, Chad Condidorio and Alex DiFrancisco to score on fourth down to keep the streak alive.
“I didn’t feel any extra pressure keeping the streak alive, because we had really good teams. But it was nice to be a part of the streak,” explained Brady Bonacquisti.
At this point in the streak, there seemed to be a feeling of invincibility that resonated among the players. I have asked many young men that played during this time of their mindset about playing at home. All of them felt that at some point, a play would be made by a Knight teammate to secure a win. The coaches were so proud to watch young men playing with such great confidence. So great was this pride that Coach Andrew Paladino bought team shirts with the slogan, “We are not here to lose.” How could they, they were Knights.
In another chapter, I wrote about the rivalry between LeRoy and Batavia. The series resumed during the 2002 season after a forty-three year hiatus. The home winning streak was put to the test between the two teams in 2007.
The Blue Devils from Batavia took a 12-0 lead into halftime. A disgruntled LeRoy fan voiced his displeasure of the Knights’ first half performance by chanting, “overrated” as the home team left the field. After over one hundred years of great players and teams, and, especially during this ten-year run, pulling wins out at home, one had to question this fan’s faith in our Knights. Was this his first LeRoy game? Did he not know a Knight would come to the rescue? Well, ye of little faith!
Travis Pangrazio, a special teams player on that team, spoke of the halftime speeches by fellow players. In his opinion, they were instrumental in winning. Pangrazio explained, “The coaches talked for just a few minutes and left. Then the leaders of the team took over, and I really believe it motivated us to play better in the second half. We all looked at one another and knew what we needed to do.”
Fullback Brady Bonacquisti carried the ball twenty-plus times in the second half and scored twice. Mike Humphrey added two interceptions. Andrew Alexander caught a touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter from Travis Fenstermaker to seal another home victory for LeRoy. Overrated? I think not! Just being Knights!
Another season in the books with the streak still alive. It almost seemed to be a player’s duty to pass the streak on to the next player.
The 2008 contest with Cal-Mum didn’t start well for the home team. The Red Raiders scored two quick touchdowns, and it seemed the streak would end. All streaks come to an end, and to some it appeared that this would be the night it came to an end. It seemed only fitting that our biggest rivals end the streak. Not so quick.
Three straight touchdowns for the home team in the first half and another one in the fourth quarter put the game on ice for the Knights. Once again, Fenstermaker, Humphrey, and Alexander played the offensive heroes on this autumn night. Key defensive stops late in the game by John Scheuing, John Kelso, and Jordan Casper, and the streak carried on for another day, another year. The 2008 season ended with the streak at forty-three.
All good things must come to an end. Ironically, Coach Brian Moran’s high school alma mater, the Livonia Bulldogs, would be the home opener in 2009. Prior to the game, the Knights honored former head coach and Section V Football Hall of Fame member Frank Ruane. In honor of his time in LeRoy the first permanent plaque in the north end zone was dedicated in memory of Coach Ruane. Frank passed away two years prior to this night. His family, friends and former players were in attendance. It seemed all the cards were stacked against the Bulldogs.
For the first time, the Rochester newspaper, along with the local papers, was writing about the home winning streak. It seemed natural that this evening would end like the previous decade, with a victory.
Years later, I spoke with Livonia’s head coach, Steve Girolmo, about the game that night. He explained, “You guys during that period had won so many sectional championships. We knew of your history, the streak, and had great respect for LeRoy football. It was great motivation for our team.” He went on, “Why not us? It was a great challenge that we felt we were prepared for.”
The game was never close; the Bulldogs scored early and often and won the game going away. Mike Bennetti, a member of that LeRoy team, explained, “I felt like we let the coaches down.”
I can honestly say the better team won the game that night, which wasn’t always the case during the ten-year period. But Knights will be Knights, even in defeat. The young men shook hands with the victorious Livonia Bulldogs and, like the previous forty-three games, marched off the field two by two, with honor, even in defeat. What else was a Knight to do? It is all part of their journey.